Birdwatch - February 2000, Issue 92

February 2000, Issue 92

World Handbook
Big is beatiful

Handbook of the Birds of the World, Volume 5
Edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and Jordi Sargatal
(Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 1999. 760 pages, 76 colour plates, 406 colour photographs, 758 distribution maps. Hbk, £110.00)

I wonder how many people were sceptical about how far the Handbook of the Birds of the World project would progress when the first volume was published in 1992. However, with the publication of Volume 5 the bookmakers probably wouldn’t take bets on it not being finished in style. With what is arguably the strongest volume to date, a publication that all the critics have described as a "monumental" work is going from strength to strength.

Admittedly, part of the reason for the appeal of the latest offering is its scope, covering as it does some of the world’s most exciting birds: owls, nightjars, swifts and hummingbirds certainly take some beating. Included here are some of the planet’s most enigmatic, beautiful and amazing species.

The Handbook of the Birds of the World formula is all-encompassing. It is far more than a field guide, yet its colour plates are of the quality to be expected in the best in-the-field reference, and its photographs are superb. The depth of information on each family is on a comparable plane with that in many family monographs. And if you want to use it as a coffee table book, the brilliant photographs are enough to delight someone with only the most tenuous interest in birds.

So how does the whole thing hang together? The introductory chapters for each of the nine families dealt with – barn owls, typical owls, Oilbird, owletnightjars, frogmouths, potoos, nightjars, swifts, treeswifts and hummingbirds – give a thorough overview dealing with systematics, morphology, habits, voice, food and feeding, breeding, movements, relationship with man, and status and conservation. It is sensible to separate so much information out from the species accounts, both to draw out the similarities between related birds and also to show the range of variation.There is much information here which is not duplicated in the species accounts. A read of these sections makes understanding taxonomic relationships that much easier.

Taxonomic ‘grey areas’ are addressed, but where there is debate about relationships, the different options are explained as well as current knowledge allows. Reference is made to extinct species and to the fossil record. So, for example, we learn that the earliest swift-like bird was called Primapus lacki and was found in Eocene deposits in England. The 760 pages are jam-packed with interesting facts such as this.

It is the introductory chapters for the families which provide a home for the photographs, which are truly excellent throughout. It appears that the publisher has not left a stone unturned in the quest to find the very best. When you consider that the subject matter ranges from birds which are nocturnal to those that usually don´t stay in one place for more than a nanosecond, this must have seemed a tall order, but the aim has been achieved. Space does not allow a list of the truly great shots, but one of my personal favourites is the flying Oilbird at dusk on page 247, and take a look at the Marvellous Spatuletail on page 491 and the Green Violet-ear on page 496 if you would like to be lured to the Neotropics. The captions are very informative, too, some running to 40 lines or more, although I feel it would help the reader in immediately recognising pictures of unfamiliar birds if the species name was emboldened in each.

The colour paintings of each species are positioned sensibly among the species accounts.

There are 76 plates, covering each of the 743 species dealt with in the text and a good number of distinct subspecies.Where relevant, both sexes and different colour morphs are illustrated, and where it helps, notably with the nightjars, flight illustrations accompany those of perched birds.

For a project of this scale it is inevitable that a team of artists will have to be called upon.

Nineteen are represented in this volume, but although slight differences in style are apparent, none has fallen below a very acceptable standard. It is notoriously difficult to paint hummingbirds – the same individual can look black in dull conditions and iridescent in direct sunlight – but the task is achieved comprehensively with the 32 plates covering this family. And plate 35, which includes Standard-winged and Pennant-winged Nightjars, got me thinking about flights to Africa.

The species accounts cover taxonomy, distribution, descriptive notes, habitat, food and feeding, breeding, movements, and status and conservation. Subspecies and their distributions are listed. Every account includes a clear distribution map, covering breeding and wintering ranges. The team of experts who have compiled and written these accounts have consulted a copious list of references which runs to 62 pages.

In fact, everything about this book is big, from its 310x240 mm format and 760 pages to its weight, which at 4 kg precludes it going into the field with you. And, yes, £110 is a lot of money, but this is exceptional value. I can hardly wait for the next seven volumes.

Tim Harris